In a region where freedom of expression remains a dream and the traditional media suffers from severe restrictions, social networking sites are fast emerging as alternative forums for people to express their views and concerns.
The Arab Spring revolutions that effectively used social media to mobilise mass protests against oppressive regimes have accelerated this trend. The number of social media enthusiasts in the Arab world, including the Gulf countries, has increased manifold after these revolutions.
An increasing number of people in this region now view social media not as a source of entertainment but as a forum for serious and critical discussion of socio-political issues. It has been pointed out that the interests and aspirations of people in the Gulf, especially the youth, have seen dramatic changes over the past few decades. Earlier, popular discourses were more focused on cultural and religious issues, but now people have started talking politics and issues concerning their daily lives more openly.
Analysts point to several recent incidents in the Gulf countries where people successfully used social networking sites, especially Twitter, to mobilise public opinion on important issues. A campaign in Saudi Arabia demanding a salary hike for employees drew more than 17 million tweets, according to some reports. Groups of citizens in Qatar recently waged successful campaigns through social networking sites seeking government action against unreasonable hikes in commodity prices and drawing public attention to several social and educational issues.
Serious concerns have been raised in the region about misuse of social media, leading to efforts by some governments to control and monitor it. Most Gulf countries have either laid down laws to regulate online media or are in the process of doing so. Preventing cybercrime is a major objective of these regulations, but they are also seen by many as efforts to restrict the freedoms enjoyed by citizens in cyberspace.
“It is not easy to control social media, especially when the number of users is continuously increasing. People can use different ways to express their opinion under different names, from different parts of the world. More restrictions can lead to more misuse,” says Faisal Al Marzouqi, a prominent Qatari writer and columnist.
In his view, instead of trying to regulate social media, the government should use this media to engage with people and address their concerns.
“Government bodies should intervene immediately through their social media accounts to scotch rumours circulating through this media. Delayed government response would give more chance for rumours to spread, and once they spread widely, it will become difficult to correct them,” says a Bahraini social media enthusiast.
According to Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, Qatari novelist and columnist, there is a wrong perception that people are always in conflict with their governments.
“They are trying to raise issues concerning their daily lives. The solution is to address them properly,” says Al Mahmoud.